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Prison Reform Task Force Prepares Recommendations

A statewide committee is looking into prison sentencing and reentry.

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The Governor's Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism has been working for a year to make the state's prison system more effective, and they may be making their first recommendations as soon as next month.

The task force was formed last year with the help of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Vera Institute of Justice out of New York. The task force's 27 members were appointed by Governor Bill Haslam to reform the prison sentencing structure in Tennessee.

The group is focused on sentencing structure, sentencing classifications and enhancements, programming and treatment, and community supervision.

Among the 27 are seven from the Memphis metro area: John Campbell, criminal court judge; Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis); Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown); Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell; Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham; Blair Taylor, president of Memphis Tomorrow; and Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

Luttrell, who requested to be considered for the task force, said he believed he could use his previous experience in law enforcement and corrections.

"It's a comprehensive look at sentencing reform and trying to keep people from returning to prison," he said.

According to a Vera Institute of Justice report released in June, the prison population is expected to rise by four percent over the next five years, pushing the state's prison population over maximum capacity.

"It's not the intent of this task force to increase the [prison] population," Luttrell said. "If you look at the multitude of recommendations that we've been making, we talk about some areas where it doesn't have sentencing, but then it also talks about a number of areas where we are looking at reducing prison time, more effective ways to deal with behavior, more community-based programs, and establishing commissions and councils that will sustain this initiative going forward."

At the August 6th meeting of the task force, Luttrell said he hopes they will complete the first draft of recommendations to be sent the governor.

"Certainly, there are instances where we need to enhance sentencing, but there are also areas that we need to ensure that the sentencing accurately reflects the severity of the offense, which would be a reduced sentence in some cases," Luttrell said.

Kerry Hayes, an adviser to Just City Memphis (a criminal justice reform organization), said the task force may be biased: "The people from Shelby County [on the task force], by-and-large, are fantastic people. On the whole, the entire task force statewide is overwhelmingly oriented around law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges, which means there's a whole half to the criminal justice system that's hardly being represented at all, in particular, the public defenders."

"Any time you have a massive statewide committee like this that is so completely biased in terms of one viewpoint that's dealing with stuff this sensitive, you run the risk of having recommendations coming out that are tilted, which is what looks like is happening," Hayes said.

Hayes said there are some task force-recommended reforms that may spell out progress for the criminal justice system, including recommendations to change the threshold for the felony property crime charge to $1,000 from $500. The Vera Institute's analysis of the task force's recommendations found causes for concern, including requiring that repeat drug trafficking and aggravated burglary offenders serve 85 percent of their sentences.

"They're changing some parole policies that we think might increase the population of incarcerated individuals in Tennessee," Hayes said. "That is really troubling, because that has ripple effects all throughout the rest of the criminal justice system, all the way down to the taxpayer. Suddenly, budgets are increasing, because prisons are increasing in size, and [private prison] companies like [Corrections Corporation of America] are increasing their contracts with governments. The whole criminal justice apparatus becomes more expensive and harder to unwind."


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